Pope Benedict celebrating Mass ad orientem in the Sistine Chapel on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord 2008 when he baptised 13 children.
A very irritating experience I have here in the Philippines occasionally is when I am invited to celebrate Mass on some special occasion such as a recollection day for students. Usually there is a commentator. I would love to see this role abolished, since it serves no useful purpose. Many parishes here still have someone telling them when to sit, stand or kneel, which is not the business of the commentator at all.
The General Instruction of the Roman Mass No 105 b) clearly describes the commentator's job: The commentator, who provides the faithful, when appropriate, with brief explanations and commentaries with the purpose of introducing them to the celebration and preparing them to understand it better. The commentator's remarks must be meticulously prepared and clear though brief. In performing this function the commentator stands in an appropriate place facing the faithful, but not at the ambo. (My highlights).
I have heard commentators cutting across the priest as he is saying 'Let us proclaim the mystery of faith' by telling the people, 'Please stand'. (Here in the Philippines the people stand for the rest of the Eucharistic Prayer. I would prefer if they stayed kneeling). There are no more courteous people than Filipinos but the role of commentator seems to distort the personality of some. After more than 40 years of the new Mass people don't need to be told when to sit or stand, except maybe on occasions such as weddings when the ceremony is a little more complicated. And many haven't been in church since a previous wedding or funeral.
And readers get in on the act too telling people, 'Please stand to honour the Gospel'.
On 16 August Fr Edward McNamara LC answered in Zenit a question from Liberia: During the celebration of the Mass, where, who or what is the center of focus? Is it the altar or the tabernacle or the celebrant? Fr McNamara began his answer with: These is really only one true center of the Eucharistic celebration around which all the rest revolves, and that is Christ and his saving mystery.
At the end of his answer he wrote: The priest, although he acts in the person of Christ, is not really a focus of the celebration. He is indeed most effective when he manages to deflect attention from himself and guides the faithful toward Christ's mystery. Indeed, the use of vestments, song and special location are meant to emphasize the priest's ministerial role rather than his person. The priest is a "pontifex," a bridge between God and man, and a bridge may be admired from a distance but is only useful when we trample over it.
So 'Please stand to welcome our celebrant, Father . . .' is totally out of order. A variation I sometimes hear and that is not totally wrong is 'Please stand to welcome Christ in the person of Father . . .'. Yes, the priest is an alter Christus, another Christ, but it is Jesus who is welcoming us. And in most churches he is present already in the tabernacle. (Father McNamara rightly points out: The tabernacle is not a center of attention during the Eucharistic celebration even though it should have a prominent and even central place in the church building for adoration outside of Mass. So the priest should bow to the altar and not to the tabernacle before he reads the Gospel, for example).
Early last year, when I was giving an eight-day retreat to junior professed Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity, the congregation of Blessed Mother Teresa, I celebrated Mass a number of times ad orientem, with priest and people all facing in the same direction. For many years I used the terminology 'the priest saying Mass with his back to the people' until I read the then Cardinal Ratzinger's book The Spirit of the Liturgy. His explanation of ad orientem made everything look totally different. And when I was grwoing up, with the old Mass, I never heard anyone speak of the priest as being with his back to the people.
Most Sundays I celebrate Mass in Holy Family Home for Girls here in Bacolod City. It's run by the Capuchin Tertiary Sisters of the Holy Family. On Monday I Mass with the Sisters. Last year I celebrated the Sunday Mass ad orientem a number of times in the large multi-purpose building when we ahd some people from outside. I explained beforehand why I was doing this.
On the feast of the Queenship of Mary I celebrated Mass ad orientem in the Sisters's chapel for the first time. Last Sunday, when we had Mass there, with part of the overflowing congregation of Sisters and girls in the lobby outside the chapel, the Sisters had prepared the altar for celebration ad orientem, as they did yesterday. I hadn't asked them to do this but was very happy that they had.
Nobody has ever made any comments, good, bad or indifferent, after I celebrated Mass ad orientem. But I believe it helps everyone, including the priest, to focus on 'Christ and his saving mystery' as Father McNamara puts it.
I also celebrate Sunday Mass regularly in Sign Language with the Deaf. Some of the commentators there used to say 'Let us stand to welcome our celebrant . . .' but no more. They now say 'Let us stand for our opening hymn'.
I am conscious of the fact that the hymns we sing at Mass aren't part of the text. I always read the Entrance Antiphon even if there is a hymn and the Communion Antiphon before the people come for Holy Communion. And I usually follow the 'default' position for the Offertory - saying the prayers very quietly, enabling the people to have some of the silence that every Mass is supposed to have.
I would love to be able to celebrate Mass always ad orientem. That's not possible. And I have no difficulty about celebrating versus populum, facing the people. But because of the influence of Pope Benedict I try to ensure that there is a large crucifix, if possible, on the altar, which is a focal point for all.